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Anecdotes and educated guesses about why election officials make an unusual number of changes in polling places before an election are widespread.  What's been lacking has been a procedure for measuring the impact of such changes and how different types of voters react. Fortunately, two political scientists have come up with a way to do this.

Writing in the current issue of the American Political Science Review (Feb 2011, Volume 105, No. 1), Henry Brady and John McNulty report their investigation of the 2003 gubernatorial recall election in California.  (The APSR is behind a subscription wall, but you can find it at most college and university libraries).  The election provided a natural experiment to investigate this question, as some counties attempted to cut costs by consolidating precincts and changing polling locations in ways that nearly randomly assigned higher voting costs to some but not all voters.  By comparing turnout in the counties that did this with turnout in those that did not, the effects of the changes can be estimated.  

Brady and McNulty began with voting records from the 2002 general election and the 2003 gubernatorial recall election in California.  They had data on the residence of each voter, who voted, their polling place for each election, and their age.  They had complete info on about 2.7 million voters.

They first analyzed whether there were any systematic predictors of which counties moved polling places.  They found very weak systematic effects -- about 1% of the variation in polling place changes was due to factors such as the size of the precinct, the number of absentee voters, and the average age of voters.  There was no significant effect of party of the registered voters in this case.

Their analysis of the voters found that precincts where polling places changed had an average decline of about 3% in polling place voting, an average increase of about 1.2% in absentee voting, and an average increase in non-voting of 1.9%.  Of particular importance for Democrats, the average decline in Democrats' voting (2.1%), exceeded that for independents (1.8%) and Republicans (1.6%).

While there is no evidence of conscious manipulation in these California results, the findings suggest that it is appropriate to be watchful concerning the location of polling places.  Areas experiencing notable population growth or decline are bound to experience some changes in polling places as a matter of routine, but wholesale changes, particularly when they appear to lack justification in administrative cost-saving, should be scrutinized quite closely.

Originally posted to tarheelian51 on Fri Apr 15, 2011 at 09:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by California politics.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Interesting findings (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Not really surprising, particularly if the polling place had been in one place for many years and then they changed it. Thanks.

  •  This is an overlooked phenomenon (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    opinionated, antimony, FarWestGirl

    If there had been more polling places in OH in 2004, Kerry would have won the electoral vote.

    Instead, there were long lines, and people who just got off work aren't going to stand for hours in the rain just to cast a ballot.

    There are usually more polling stations per capita in exurbs and rural areas as opposed to urban ones. Combine that with the fact that absentee voting is much easier (partially due to the increasing number of restrictions placed on in person voting due to imagined fraud), voting takes no time at all in Republican areas and forever in Democratic ones.

    This could have been something that the Dems did when they had their supermajorities, instead of running from their shadow and defunding ACORN.

    "There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill."

    by bay of arizona on Fri Apr 15, 2011 at 09:44:38 AM PDT

  •  The reason Obama won (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FarWestGirl, Calamity Jean

    New Mexico is a "contested" state.  A contested state that always seems to get a big blast of Texas Money, but that's another story.

    The Obama campaign was successful because of all the effort on the ground.  Registering voters, building the database of voters.  I worked a lot on that, so I look at the operation from that perspective.

    Even early on:  Dave Matthews gave a free concert in Indiana, for example, where you just had to register to vote to get in.  They worked all the campuses.  Most of those young voters have moved since then, so all that work must be done over - tracking those old voters down, and signing up all the new ones that have come of age.

    There might not be quite the same event crowds this time.  But the TV news people always talk about money and ads.  But they also opened offices in towns - Chama, NM for example - that have never ever had a presidential campaign office before.  Ever.  Small, remote towns.  They built the database everywhere.

    Taos County (pop. 31,507 in 2009) had over 300 volunteers out on election day.  We have early voting, so a fair chunk of the work was done.  But there were people at most of the precincts, adding the names of everyone who'd come in to vote.  I was one of the circuit riders that went around to the precincts every few hours, picked up the lists, and sent in who'd actually voted.

    People were on the phones, calling people who hadn't voted yet.  People from non-contested areas did that from around the country.  (Kossack Elise specialized in rural SE NM, for example.)  Then, at 3 in the afternoon, people went out looking for the ones who still hadn't voted.  Showed up at their houses with the message - "Vote now!"

    We even had cooks put up breakfast and lunch for us (fabulous breakfast burritos, for example), so no one would waste time looking for food.  That was some people's main way of volunteering all through the campaign - bringing food for the campaign workers and volunteers.

    Election day actually seemed slow.  We worried about low turnout.  But in the end, it was the best turnout ever.  That's because so many people voted early.  That was record as well.  That's why Obama won.

    Maybe some people didn't see it their areas.  I rather figure not all states got the same level of attention.  The friggin' T-Party studied it, and used a lot of the same methods themselves.  It works.

    Anyhow:  That's one of the things that an active ground game does.  It makes sure every one of their voters knows where their polling place is.

    exmearden: Grab every minute of joy you can. 8/30/09

    by Land of Enchantment on Fri Apr 15, 2011 at 10:04:44 AM PDT

  •  Tipped and recc'd for (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    bringing important research to broader attention in an accessible manner.

    Cardinal’s Law: As the terms “red” and “blue” increase in a given diary, the probability of logical fallacies and factual errors approaches 1.

    by cardinal on Fri Apr 15, 2011 at 11:28:11 AM PDT

  •  Good catch, good info, thank you! n/t (0+ / 0-)

    Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

    by FarWestGirl on Fri Apr 15, 2011 at 01:04:43 PM PDT

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